Photographers' Blog

Inside Guantanamo Bay

March 13, 2013

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

By Bob Strong

My visit to the U.S. naval station in Guantanamo Bay Cuba began much like any other military embed. I sent an application to the Press Affairs Office (PAO) explaining who I worked for and the reason for my visit, and a couple of weeks later the trip was approved. The base is divided into two sections, the naval station which has been in existence since 1903, and the Joint Task Force (JTF GTMO) which is where the detainees are held. A special ID is needed to access the JTF section of the base and most residents of the naval station never go there. My visit request was directed at the JTF side, but I was able to work on the naval section as well.

GALLERY: INSIDE GUANTANAMO

I was met at the airport by two Sergeants, who would be my escorts for the entire trip. Although technically I could walk around the naval base unescorted, taking pictures on any military installation often attracts attention, and I ended up doing all of my work while accompanied by PAO personnel. After I arrived I was briefed on what could and could not be photographed, and reminded that all photographs and videos had to be reviewed and approved by military censors. This generally took place at the end of the day and was referred to as the OPSEC (operational security) review.

There is a long list of items not to photograph but ironically, I was permitted to take pictures of the NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs posted everywhere. When I mentioned that every inch of the base was easily identified on Google Earth, everyone in the office nodded their heads and sighed.

The meat of any photography visit to Guantanamo are the prison visits. There are two prisons at JTF that journalists are permitted to visit, Camp V and VI, and these are where most of the detainees are held. There is also a third, top secret detention facility called Camp VII or Camp Platinum where ‘high-value detainees’, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, are kept, but this is off limits to journalists.

On Day One we visited Camps V and VI. I was accompanied by my two PAO escorts, the JTF Deputy Commander, the U.S. Army Captains in charge of each camp, and several other soldiers. It was an impressive entourage. The Captain in charge of Camp V said there had been some unspecified disturbances lately and the prison was full, which meant there was no access to an upper level catwalk where photographers traditionally can shoot pictures of detainees. They opened one door to a cellblock and I was able to photograph a guard walking away from me past a line of closed cells. Not a good start.

At Camp VI next door I was shown an empty cellblock and a detainee room with standard issue clothing on the bed. The prisoners have begun hanging posters with written messages on the fence facing the cell door and it would have made an interested picture but predictably, it was off limits. We arrived at a cell where one detainee was reading a newspaper and I was permitted to take pictures. Because I couldn’t show the detainee’s face I needed to wait until he looked down or turned the page, but in the end I had something. I asked if I could shoot pictures of the recreation yard as I has seen before, but was turned down. There ended my prison visit.

After the prison visits, I still had two days of time to fill up, so we began looking to the naval base side for other options. We spent some time doing pictures of U.S. Marines at the rifle range, then found the fire department was training a group of Jamaicans to be the new firefighting teams. The firefighting pictures turned out to be pretty interesting, but not exactly front page news. Tuesday afternoon I asked to take a few pictures of the fence and “no photography” signs outside Camp Delta, the former prison which now houses the detainee medical clinic and administrative offices. Even with my PAO escort we were stopped and questioned by almost every person who drove past. No one could believe I was allowed to take pictures of the signs or fence. OPSEC is alive and well at Camp Delta.

The next couple of days were filled up with standard media visit stops. The overgrown former detention center at Camp X-Ray which is infested with furry little animals known on the base as Banana Rats. We did a quick tour of the harbor with the U.S. Coast Guard, the detainee library, the main shopping strip featuring a McDonalds and Subway, and a trip to the Northeast Gate to see the dividing line between the U.S. base and Cuba.

I had a pretty good look at life on the base. The prices were right; $2.60 for a full breakfast buffet and $4.60 for lunch and dinner. There are Jamaican and Cuban restaurants and a few bars to while away the evening hours, cable TV and internet, plus an outdoor movie theater showing the latest releases for free. Still, you are on a base which is only 40 square miles and the only way off the island is on a plane. When I asked Kelly Wirfel, Press Affairs Officer for the U.S. Naval Base what it was like to be stationed at Gitmo she said there was an old saying about living on the base. You can turn into a Chunk (overeating), a Hunk, (gym rat), a Monk (solitary), or a Drunk (no explanation required).

Comments
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First of all, thank you for your reporting and your photographs. This is truly great stuff. I’m wondering if the “posters with written messages” you saw in Camp 6 (but were kept from photographing) were messages related to the detainees’ hunger strike? As i’m sure you know, your visit to Gitmo took place during the ongoing protest. Even more, your visit would seem to have taken place roughly during the time of a reported suicide attempt by a hunger striking detainee at the prison. Are you prohibited by the military to divulge the nature of those “posters with written messages” in the same way that you were prohibited from photographing them? I ask only because I am not sure of the current protocols at Gitmo, and because I am very interested in the detainees’ ongoing hunger strike campaign. Thank you.

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